Modern Slavery Today

Ashurst examines the common themes of today's forms of slavery: coercion, fear and exploitation

Forms of Modern Slavery

Unlike the very public form of slavery in the nineteenth century slavery, twenty first century slavery comes in many forms and can be less easy to spot – despite taking place in nearly every country in the world.

The term "Modern slavery" is now used to refer to a number of different forms of exploitation and coercion through which over 40 million people are forced to do what they are told without being able to leave. Below we have included a number of definitions and elements of modern slavery from organisations working in this field including Anti-Slavery International, which recognises the following forms of modern slavery: people who are forced to work or caught up in bonded labour, people who are born into slavery, people who are trafficked for a number of purposes, children who are exploited for others' gain and people married against their will with no ability to leave the marriage.

Coercion, fear and exploitation are common themes of today's forms of slavery, as people who may already be experiencing disadvantage or marginalisation become trapped in slavery through threats or abuse with no clear way out.

As the number of people caught in forms of modern slavery continues to increase, so too have efforts by governments, international systems and not-for-profit organisations. However with around 1% of modern slavery victims currently being freed each year there is a clear role for the global community to play in order to increase impact:

  • Eradicating forced labour from global supply chains could free many of the 24 million people caught in forced labour today and this requires everyone involved in supply chains to play their part – both industry and individual consumers.

  • As the third most valuable transnational crime globally, drawing on industry expertise to devise tactics that disrupt the estimated $150 billion+ profits generated annually from human trafficking could reduce its attractiveness to criminals and with it, reduce the number of people trafficked annually.

As a global law firm, we already undertake pro bono legal work with organisations in the anti-slavery community. We now recognise an opportunity to do more: to go beyond ad-hoc projects and identify ways for everyone in our firm to play a role. By partnering with those organisations through a strategic and systemic approach, we can work to achieve more. And we can build on the opportunity to connect with and across the full range of global industries that we serve through our legal work, to share ideas and initiatives as widely as possible for maximum impact. Read more in the Advising Commercial and Pro Bono clients on Modern Slavery section.

Common definitions

There is no internationally agreed definition of "modern slavery." It is an umbrella term used to refer to a range of exploitative practices including slavery, forced labour, debt bondage, domestic servitude, human trafficking, organ trafficking, surrogacy, forced marriage and the use of child soldiers. These practices arise in a range of different contexts (public and private, commercial and institutional), vary in scope (domestic or international) and often disproportionately affect particular groups of people (such as women, children, migrants, workers, and local populations in developing countries).

Similarly, no definition of "human trafficking" has been agreed upon internationally. Human trafficking is a process which places individuals in a situation of exploitation, and is in itself inherently exploitative. There is therefore a significant degree of overlap between "human trafficking" and the practices which constitute "modern slavery."

The diversity of exploitative practices which fall within the umbrella of "modern slavery" means that they are often divided into sub-categories according to the identity of the victim, the perpetrator or even the purpose of exploitation. For instance, forced labour may in different contexts be described as domestic servitude, forced labour or State-imposed labour.

In a similar vein, distinctions are often drawn between the practices of sex trafficking, child trafficking and trafficking of migrants. Such distinctions may be arbitrary in certain situations, for instance where the victims of sex trafficking include children and migrants, or even individuals who are both children and migrants (such as unaccompanied asylum seeking children). This is a reflection of how closely connected many of these exploitative practices are.

 Anti-Slavery International

Someone is in slavery if they are:

(i) forced to work (through coercion, or mental or physical threat);

(ii) owned or controlled by an "employer" (through mental or physical abuse, or the threat thereof);

(iii) dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as "property"; or

(iv) physically constrained or have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement.

World Economic Forum

While there is no globally agreed definition of modern slavery, some of the key elements are defined below. Many forms of slavery involve more than one of these elements:

(i) bonded labour;

(ii) descent-based slavery;

(iii) forced labour;

(iv) early and forced marriage;

(v) human trafficking; and

(vi) organ trafficking.

Red Cross

Human trafficking and modern-day slavery are crimes in which people are exploited for other people's personal gain.

There are many ways people are exploited. Often people will be exploited in more than one way at the same time. They can be forced into labour, criminality, prostitution or domestic servitude and these are all forms of exploitation.

Some of the most common forms of modern slavery include:

Forced labour: "All work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily." International Labour Organisation, Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29). Forced labour consists of work that is performed involuntarily, under coercion, and is characterised by exploitation. The "coercion" involved can take the form of physical violence or intimidation, as well as more subtle forms such as deception, psychological control, manipulated debt, retention of identity papers and threats of denunciation to immigration or other authorities.

Human trafficking: "The recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person by such means as threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud or deception for the purpose of exploitation.” UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

Descent-based slavery: "Where a person is born into slavery, because their family members were captured into slavery and their family have "belonged" to slave "owners" ever since. Individuals born into descent-based slavery will often face forced labour and other forms of abuse and exploitation for their entire lifetime." Anti-Slavery International.

Bonded labour: Also known as "debt bondage" and "peonage", this is a situation which begins with an existing debt (whether incurred or inherited) that cannot be paid immediately. A person offers their services in order to repay the debt, and is then subjected to exploitation which makes the loan impossible to repay. For instance, the "employer" may deduct charges for shelter, food or water from the "employee's" salary, ensuring that they continue to incur debt and remain under the control of their "employer."

The worst forms of child labour: this can include children who are caught up in forced or bonded labour; children who are exploited through drug smuggling and other activities; children forcibly recruited into gangs or to become child solders; and more.

Early and forced marriage: this can be classed as a form of modern slavery where the individual has not given free and informed consent to enter into marriage; where the individual is subjected to control, "ownership" and exploitation in the marriage; and where the individual cannot realistically leave or end the marriage.